As the dust of the Knesset elections has settled, this week we move onto an election of far greater import. In this week’s Parshas Yisro, HaKadosh Baruch Hu elects to give the Torah to the Jewish People and take them as His holy nation.
At the foot of Har Sinai, before the Torah was even given, while Bnei Yisrael were still preparing themselves for the tremendous Revelation that was about to take place, they discovered that this Torah wasn’t really suited to what they perceived as their needs, their character, their essence, and their disposition. They would have to adapt their nature to suit the Torah’s demands. This is how the Torah describes their preparations for the great moment of their encounter with HaKadosh Baruch Hu:
“Hashem said to Moses, ‘Go to the people and sanctify them today and tomorrow, and they shall wash their garments. And they shall be prepared for the third day, for on the third day, Hashem will descend before the eyes of all the people upon Mount Sinai. And you shall set boundaries for the people all around, saying, “Beware of ascending the mountain or touching its edge; whoever touches the mountain shall surely die.” … When the ram's horn sounds a long, drawn out blast, they may ascend the mountain’” (Shemos19: 10-13).
Here we meet the nation on the eve of its peak moment, when the people are required to prepare in the most practical sort of way: “And they shall wash their garments.” This mundane act of producing a freshly-laundered garment, by its very nature, gives a person a sense of cleanliness and imbues his soul with a feeling of purity and elevation. It enables him to sanctify himself and take off into the open spaces of spirituality. The implication is that while they hearts were still immersed in mundane, material concerns -- while they were preoccupied with little things, they were not capable of integrating the elevated message of Har Sinai. The people realized that the Torah would not come to them out of their own selves, but would be imposed on them externally.
That was the first practical step, the phase that awakened their mental preparedness for the next phase, that of setting boundaries around the mountain and prohibiting contact with it: “Beware of ascending the mountain or touching its edge.”
Why was this prohibition so fundamental?
“…As long as the Revelation on the mountain was taking place, it was prohibited for any living creature — man, beast, or wild animal — to approach the Mountain of G‑d, so that the people of that generation, and their offspring for all generations, should know that Hashem had stood in His place, as it were, facing the people, and His words had reached their ears. Hashem was not among them, not in their midst, and His voice did not come forth from their midst” (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on the Parshah).
How does this explain the difference between the Torah of Israel and the rest of the world’s religions?
“For the Torah of Israel is the only law that did not emerge from the people. Judaism is the only ‘religion’ that did not come out of the heart of human beings who were looking for a spiritual foundation for their lives in religion. And so this very ‘objectivity’ of the Torah and the Jewish ‘religion’ makes it unique, and upholds a striking division between it and the other bodies of religious law in the world” (ibid).
Let us move on to another passage:
“All other religions and bodies of law that emerged from the heart of humanity according to the circumstances of the time, are only expressions of viewpoints that arose at particular times among particular groups of people, regarding G‑d and the destiny of man, and regarding the relationship of man to G‑d and interpersonal relations. All other religions and legal systems, therefore, must progress with time just like any other element of culture that emerged among people at any particular time, for example in the realm of science, the arts, or ethics. Each of these is nothing but a manifestation of that stage of development where mankind stands in that field, at that time” (ibid).
In fact, the development of human civilization is a reflection of the aspirations and ambitions of society at a particular point in time, unique to that generation. And when that generation passes, the things that drove it are also subject to laws of aging, of fossilization, as time itself grinds to dust. The socialist doctrines of Karl Marx, for example, have very little in common with the approach of those who call themselves socialists today. There were different problems then, and accordingly, different ways of looking at them and solving them. And this has been the fate of the Zionism of Bilu and the First Aliyah, of those who dreamed of a return to Zion as a far-off, visionary scheme. But now the dream has come true and a Jewish state was established, that early Zionism is nothing like the Zionism of today. Such has been the fate of all the visions and great ideologies that stirred the hearts of millions throughout the generations. With the passing of the generation that created them, their glory, too, faded away. They had lost their vitality, and sometimes even seemed ridiculous to the new generation, with very few faithful adherents remaining.
But the Torah of Israel is unlike any product of civilization. It was not made to suit the needs of any particular generation, and did not arise from the conditions of any particular time. According to popular notions, though, it is obsolete, fossilized, “medieval.” Anyone today who argues that “in the past, there was a need for the mitzvos, but they have no place in a modern, developed civilization,” doesn’t realize that, in fact, the Torah has never been “suitable” for any particular generation, and it has never “belonged” to any period of history. Putting on tefillin, for example, was no more logical thousands of years ago than it is today. Neither then nor at any time has this mitzvah addressed any specific survival need, environmental condition, social problem, or any other circumstance that could explain its necessity in the past. The mitzvah of tzitzis didn’t suit Bnei Yisrael in the wilderness any better than it suits us in the twenty-first century, and certainly not the mitzvos of shatnez and kashrus. Even in the days of the wilderness, and when the Jewish people first inherited Eretz Yisrael, the culture of Torah contrasted sharply with the known cultures of the world. Even then, Bnei Yisrael were a spiritual island in an ocean of hostile cultures that ridiculed the Torah and its commandments, claimed they were irrelevant and fossilized — just almost like today.
Moshe Rabbeinu himself was aware of this essential contrast between the people and the Torah he brought down to them from the peak of Har Sinai. And he knew of the danger of wanting to be like the other nations, of adapting to their ways:
“For I know that after my death you will surely become corrupted, and you will stray from the path that I have commanded you” (Devarim 31:29).
How true was the statement of that great thinker, Dr. Yitzchak Breuer, one of the most eminent leaders of Agudas Yisrael:
“Has there ever in the world been a ‘lawmaker’ who said such words to his people after setting forth laws for them? After all, any set of laws that doesn’t suit the character of a people is basically flawed! But Moshe Rabbeinu was not a lawmaker. He was a servant of Hashem, who, as a faithful messenger, communicated the Torah of our G‑d to us, and this Torah is the absolute law of Divine justice....” (Dr. Yitzchak Breuer, Moriah).
Paradoxically, this dissonance between the Torah and the spirit of the people, which is expressed to this day in various forms, is itself a proof of the Torah’s Divine origin. It surely didn’t arise from a self-centered perspective on people’s own lives. There was nothing in their experience to give rise to such a Torah, so essentially at odds with the cultures they came from, and those they met after their liberation from Egypt. The ever-present desire to escape the bounds of the Torah’s morality only serves to strengthen our thesis. If the opposite is true, where, then, did the Torah come from? How was it transmitted, if not exactly as described in Parshas Yisro?
Adapted from my sefer, Sinai Me’az U’mitamid, which deals with eternity of the Torah independent of all civilizations and ideologies.
Food for Thought
Human fallibility being what it is, victory and truth do not always go together. Therefore, if you always have to win, you can’t always be true.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov